The clock is ticking and we’re coming closer and closer to kick-off. The world’s biggest football carnival will soon burst into life and we’ll see numerous footballing heroes (and possibly villains) emerge. There will be controversies aplenty on and off the pitch, but which teams will finish in the top two in their group to progress to the round of 16?
Without the help of a convenient psychic octopus to aid us (rest in peace, Paul), making predictions will be a little bit more difficult, but without further ado, let’s try and look into the future and predict who will qualify starting with groups A to D.
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, & Cameroon
Brazil will qualify from this group. Not the boldest prediction in the world, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t pressure on the Seleção to perform especially with the specter of protests looming over the World Cup. The squad and manager seem comfortable enough though some members are expressing sympathy regarding the grievances of the protesters. Rather than inhibiting the team, the players and manager could be spurred on by the need to give Brazil something to cheer about. With the wily Luiz Filipe Scolari at the helm the Brazilians can harness the anger and use it to generate momentum, especially if they get off to a good start against the Croatians. The only question is over goalkeeper Julio Cesar and whether he’s played enough football this season to be up to the mark.
The Croatians didn’t make qualification easy for themselves, firing their coach Igor Stimac and replacing him with Niko Kovac in time for the play offs. There is talent in this team with the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Mario Mandzukic, though the latter is suspended for the opening match against Brazil after being sent-off against Iceland in the play offs. Their second match against Cameroon will be crucial in their efforts to progress to the knockouts. Should the Croats triumph against Cameroon they should be able to beat Mexico to secure a berth in the round of 16.
Mexico’s qualifying campaign was extremely traumatic. The Mexicans needed their rivals, the United States, to score a last minute goal against Panama to ensure a play off spot against New Zealand. This Mexican commentator was rather grateful for Graham Zusi’s equalizer.
Mexican fans were thankful to Zusi too, presenting the US International with a plaque, a framed photo, and dubbing him ‘San Zusi’. Mexico though can’t expect any favours in their World Cup group and it’s hard to see them progressing to the knockout stages, especially with key players like Javier Hernandez struggling for form.
Here’s an interesting tidbit, Mexico has qualified 15 times for the World Cup (including this one) but have never won the trophy. Having failed to win the World Cup in 14 previous attempts, El Tri hold the record for the most number of appearances by a nation in this tournament without having won it. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
Cameroon managed to negotiate their way to the World Cup after beating Tunisia 4-1 on aggregate in the African qualifying zone. However, qualification for the Indomitable Lions wasn’t smooth sailing with them losing 2-0 to Togo in the group stages of the campaign, only to have the result overturned in their favor as a result of the Togolese fielding an ineligible player. Then came Samuel Eto’o’s retirement and subsequent U-turn from said decision.
There is undeniable talent within the team with Alex Song, Stephen Mbia, and Jean Makoun forming a potentially strong midfield trio, but will that and Samuel Eto’o’s guile up front be enough to see Cameroon make it through to the next round? The odds are stacked against them.
Their match against Brazil could be a little tasty especially, if Vincent Aboubaker takes to the pitch. Aboubaker fractured Thiago Silva’s cheekbone whilst playing for Lorient against PSG. Silva is unlikely to forget that encounter in a hurry.
Group Winners: Brazil
Runners Up: Croatia
SEE MORE — Everything you need to know about the World Cup.
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile & Australia
The Spaniards may have wished for an easier group to launch their defense of the World Cup, but games against the Netherlands, Chile, and Australia could be just what they need to kick start their campaign. Good results against Holland and Chile can help build momentum for Spain whilst it’s hard to see Australia troubling the World Champions. Spain negotiated their qualifying group without difficulty, emerging unbeaten and it’s hard to see them crashing out of this group either. The squad is packed with talent and more importantly, winners, whilst the addition of Diego Costa gives the Spaniards a potent threat up front. Coach Vicente Del Bosque is a wise old head and will know exactly how to ease the pressure off the squad and keep their eyes on the prize. If Spain manages to win the World Cup, then they will lay a strong claim to being the greatest international team in history. For the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas, and company the chance to write their names into the record books is motivation enough. The frightening part for all of Spain’s competitors is that this squad is good enough to do it.
Holland comes into the World Cup with a youthful team complimented with a number of experienced world-class talents. How Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie, and Wesley Sneijder perform will go a long way to determining whether the Oranjes’ stay in Brazil is a long or brief one. Manchester United manager, Louis Van Gaal, has opted to go with a youthful looking squad with the likes of Stefan De Vrij, Jordy Clasie, Memphis Depay, Bruno Martins Indi, and Jasper Cillessen all making the cut. This may be a tournament too soon for the Dutch and they’ll look to develop under Guus Hiddink after Van Gaal relinquishes the reins. The match against Spain, a repeat of the 2010 World Cup Final, will not be as tense or turgid, though Xabi Alonso will probably be keeping an eye on Nigel De Jong’s studs should the two be on the pitch at the same time. The key game will be against Chile. It the Dutch win that then they’ll make it through to the knock out stages.
Chile Is a side that most teams would rather avoid. Indeed, this is a side that could go places if everyone is fit. With the likes of Arturo Vidal, one of the best midfielders in Europe, and Alexis Sanchez the Chileans have two world class footballers to build their team around. Eduardo Vargas can help supplement the attack whilst Gary Medel will add steel to the midfield for Jorge Sampaoli’s side. Chile, on their day, can be a match for any team. Underestimate the Chileans at your peril; this World Cup could see La Roja add extra spice to the tournament.
Australia’s World Cup preparations have been pretty rough. Holger Osieck was sacked back in October following successive 6-0 defeats to Brazil and France, and replaced with Ange Postecoglou. Much like the Dutch, the Socceroos have opted to go with a youthful squad with the most experienced players being Miles Jedinak, Mark Bresciano, and Tim Cahill. It’s Australia’s misfortune that they’ve been drawn against three of the stronger sides in the World Cup and face the real possibility of exiting the tournament without a point on the board. That said, with no pressure on them the Aussies will be free to express themselves on the pitch – it all depends on how adventurous the players and the coach are willing to be.
Group Winners: Spain
Runners Up: Chile
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast & Japan
Colombia has been left reeling with the news that striker Radamel Falcao will not be able to play at the World Cup. Whilst losing a forward of that quality would be a blow to any side, the Colombians are by no means short upfront. Jackson Martinez will bear the burden of scoring the goals for whilst the highly rated James Rodriguez is one to watch out for as well. Playing in South America will suit the Colombians and they will not view the other teams in their group with too much trepidation. Opponents could target Mario Yepes as a weak link though and may ask their quicker players to target him and exploit his lack of pace.
Greece made it through to the World Cup by defeating Romania 4-2 on aggregate in the play-offs. The 2004 European Champions have not had a great history at the World Cup, participating just twice in 1994 and 2010, notching up their only victory against Nigeria in South Africa. Under the reign of Fernando Santos, Greece have attempted to move away from the Otto Rehhagal template, though their last campaign wasn’t anything to crow about goal-scoring wise. The Greeks scored just 12 times in 10 games in the group phase and the lack of firepower could be a detriment against the others in their group. Much will rely on Kostas Mitroglou, who was scoring for fun at Olympiakos before his move to Fulham, which to put it mildly has not been a great success.
The Ivory Coast will be thanking the football gods for putting them in a relatively kind group after their experiences in 2006 and 2010. That said, qualification to the knock out stages is not guaranteed for a side that has always flattered to deceive despite being littered with talent. With the likes of the Toure brothers, Didier Drogba, and Wilfried Bony, the Ivory Coast have the players to cause their opponents problems; but as a unit will they be mentally strong enough to make it over the first hurdle? The big game players will need to produce big performances early on, otherwise the Ivorians could be heading for another first round exit.
Japan was the first country to qualify for the World Cup and could be the tournament’s surprise package. Possessing some of the games more skillful technicians, Japan’s game could easily cause problems for the other teams in the group. Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda appear to be putting their disappointing club season behind them in Japan’s recent friendlies whilst in forward Shinji Okazaki they may finally have found a penetrative forward to lead the line. With 12 of their 23 players plying their trade in Europe the Japanese have the experience to go with the talent, and under the guidance of former AC Milan coach Alberto Zaccheroni, the Asian champions have the tools to do well in this World Cup.
Group Winners: Colombia
Runners Up: Japan
Group D: Uruguay, Italy, Costa Rica & England
Uruguay was the last side to win the World Cup in Brazil in 1950. They’re unlikely to lift the trophy again in 2014, but then again they were not expected to have such a good run in the last World Cup. The Copa America champions are hoping that Liverpool striker Luiz Suarez recovers from injury, but they have a chap by the name of Edinson Cavani who is not too shabby either. Uruguay is arguably the group favorites but they cannot revert to the form of their qualifying campaign, which was poor to say the least. The Uruguayans eventually booked their place in the final with a playoff win over Jordan, but any repeat of their qualifying performances and they may well be looking at an early exit. Their key man may not be on the pitch, but on the bench. El Maestro Óscar Tabárez has a knack of getting the best out of Uruguay and you wouldn’t bet against him masterminding another Uruguayan World Cup adventure.
Italy’s recent performances have been a cause for concern. Drawing against the likes of Luxembourg is not the ideal preparation for the Azzurri. But as Roy Hodgson pointed out, it’s best to read nothing into Italy’s recent performances because when it comes to the serious business the Italians more often than not turn it on. Like Uruguay, Italy seems to have a coach that is perfectly suited to them. Cesare Prandelli has already guided Italy to a European Championship final and is a coach who can manage to get the best out of his players, even the mercurial Mario Ballotelli. The Italians will be keen to make up for a lackluster 2010 World Cup and have a mix of talent from the wildly unpredictable Antonio Cassano and Mario Ballotelli to defensive rocks like George Chiellini, and of course the supreme gifts of Andrea Pirlo. Italy has the players to get through the group and with Prandelli in charge, the Azzurri could go quite far in this tournament.
England come in with a refreshingly youthful looking team coached under the watchful eye of Roy Hodgson. For a manager noted for his caution, his decision to pick the likes of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (if fit), and Ross Barkley points to a man with a long-term strategy. Going forward England do look exciting but defensively they look a little suspect, especially if one of their first choice back four gets suspended or injured. His other conundrum is what to do with Wayne Rooney. Since bursting on the international scene at Euro 2004, the Manchester United striker has not really produced the goods in subsequent international tournaments. Crucially for Hodgson though is that England doesn’t need to rely on Rooney to score the goals, as there are threats from other areas of the pitch. Hodgson’s dilemma is this though: can he trust his England team to hold on to a lead? It could be the backline that may lead to England’s downfall.
Costa Rica will go in as the rank outsiders, but they can cause opposition defenses trouble. With the talented Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz upfront there are goals in this side. Keylor Navas, the Costa Rican keeper, is a player of pedigree as well keeping 14 clean sheets for his club side Levante in La Liga. If he performs well, expect a move to a bigger club. Jorge Luis Pinto, Costa Rica’s Colombian coach has managed to make this side a difficult team to play against and one that certainly shouldn’t be underestimated.
Group Winners: Uruguay
Runners Up: Italy
That wraps up Groups A to D. And now here’s the predictions for Groups E through H.